By Melissa Proulx
Every once in a while, you’re taught a lesson or told a story that just sticks with you.
The week before spring break, Keith O’Brien, a practiced journalist, published author, and gifted storyteller, spoke at a couple of my classes.
O’Brien had a calm demeanor as he stood at the head of the room waiting patiently for class to begin. But once he spoke he had a loud, commanding voice that quickly caught your attention as it reverberated off the classroom walls. His hands were always in constant movement, helping to grab your focus as well.
For the allotted hour and a half, he told of past experiences he’d had or others that had been passed on to him through word of mouth. His suitcase of stories had points that were always clear and conscious and meant to show us how we as student journalists could do the best work possible.
Given the nature of the class, many of the stories were centered around journalism. I realize that this isn’t everyone’s major or interest, but there was one lesson that could resonate with everyone and allow history to repeat itself for the better.
The story he told was of President John F. Kennedy, White House Advisor Robert F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962.
According to O’Brien and the follow-up links he sent me, President Kennedy received a telegram on Oct. 27 from the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev saying that he would remove his missiles from Cuba. The tone of this particular letter was not aggressive and something that Kennedy was reportedly ready to agree with.
But the very next day, a second telegram came in. This one upped the stakes, saying that the U.S.S.R. would not remove its missiles unless the U.S. removed its as well.
Given the tense situation that the two countries were in at the time, this sent the president and his men into a panic. No one was sure how to react. They went over the possibilities and weighed all the different options of how to respond.
A solution was finally presented by Robert Kennedy, according to O’Brien, that seems too simple to be sane: Why not act as if they had never received the second telegram?
“The important broader lesson about this story — and the reason I told it to your class — has more to do with interpersonal relations,” O’Brien wrote in an email. “There’s no need to respond, point by point, to a longwinded email from an editor, picking a fight over each point. Instead, get to work addressing the problems, get on the phone with the editor — or ignore to proverbial second telegram.”
In the last week, I’ve managed to avoid confrontations that usually would have occurred with my bosses and my twin sister, who at times will fight me to the death rather than agree that I’m right. I’ve been able to remove myself from some emotional situations and prevent rash decisions from causing damaging.
So while many stories may be forgotten, others feel like they’ve incorporated themselves into the foundation of your bone marrow. It’s one thing to be told to breath deep in a heated moment, but this example provides some much needed clarity that I’ve missed in the past.
Melissa Proulx is a TNH staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @_mcproulx.